Hyun Soo Kim's early struggles transitioning to the major leagues were evident. The South Korean outfielder's 0-for-23 start to spring training spoke volumes on its own, but his contact was weak and his swing slow. He looked overmatched. Kim fell so far behind that the Orioles attempted to send him to the minor leagues to begin the season despite a clause in his contract that allowed him to deny the assignment.
That's all changed. Though the Orioles were begrudgingly forced to keep Kim on the Opening Day roster, he is now an instrumental part of their charge to the postseason and one reason why they open the second half of the season sitting atop the American League East standings.
"Even talking about the spring training and the beginning of the season, I'm far more excited and now I see all the players around me in the clubhouse … enjoying the game," Kim said through interpreter Danny Lee. "… I am becoming one of them now. I'm really starting to enjoy the game more and I'm having more fun on the field and in the clubhouse so I'm definitely more excited to play out there in the second half."
The Orioles will resume play Friday at Tampa Bay. And they'll have much more confidence in Kim than they did to begin the season.
Kim played sparingly in the season's first month – earning just four starts by the end of April -- but gradually began earning more playing time and eventually assumed the starting left fielder spot on most nights, hitting from the No. 2 spot to give a patient approach in the within a batting order full of mashers. Kim, who has started 31 of the Orioles' last 35 games, owns a .329 batting average and .410 on-base percentage, both team bests. Kim's wins above replacement at the break is 1.4, which ranks sixth on the club.
"Spring and fall are the big foolers with baseball evaluation," Orioles manager Buck Showalter said. "You have to be really careful with that. The big thing is he had no major league track record, so you really had nothing to go off of. He was ready for his opportunity. I don't know if this is different because of all the adjustments he made. I know he's constantly [trying]."
Not long ago, the Orioles were desperate for answers. Showalter publicly talked about how the spring training in South Korea is longer and more spread out. He talked about how the high Florida skies were a challenge pursuing fly balls and how anyone in Kim's situation had to adjust to both a high level of play and pressure to perform from his native country.
Kim was never looking for an excuse, only an opportunity once the season started.
"As a professional baseball player, I should have been ready, not complaining about how much I did before," Kim said. "I should have known everything and made sure everything was prepared. But I feel that I really wasn't prepared, but now I know the system better than before so I feel more comfortable that way. I can't say that because Korean baseball has a [longer] spring training, I can't make any excuses on that."
In retrospect, Showalter said that Kim's early-season time on the bench helped the player acclimate. Kim was able to watch the game, talk to his teammates and test himself gradually.
"I don't think anybody watches the game more and takes in things more than him," Showalter said. "He's watching every pitch through the early part of the season. Actually, when you look back at it, the whole process was really beneficial for him to take a breath and kind of watch the major league game, be in new stadiums he's never been in, being in a new atmosphere."
Kim struggled with the speed of the game, especially facing pitchers who threw noticeably harder than what he was used to seeing during his decade in the Korean Baseball Organization. He worked hard to improve his bat speed and Orioles slugger Mark Trumbo suggested Kim tweak a toe-tap that he used for years in Korea to uncoil his swing.
Kim used the tap as a timing mechanism, but against big league pitching, it was slowing him down. Kim worked with Trumbo and hitting coach Scott Coolbaugh to make an adjustment that has paid off.
"I've experimented with it as well, and I think he felt like it was a little difficult to maintain," Trumbo said of the toe tap. "There's some guys [who] have done it well, but I think with the speed that a lot of pitchers this day and age are throwing, the simpler the better. I think he used that a little while and we talked about how it can be difficult. It's useful against guys that throw a little bit slower, but the hard-throwers, it can be very tough to time. I think he did away with that and now he's gone with a more traditional load. I gave him a few examples of [left-handed hitters] who did a pretty good job and he studies the swing as much as anyone I've seen, so I think he's been able to integrate that pretty well."
While Kim's first month was characterized by some well-placed infield hits, he's shown more power to his swing over recent weeks. Kim had six extra-base hits – four doubles and two homers – in his last 11 games after totaling seven extra-base hits in his first 35 games.
"He's been tremendous," Trumbo said. "He repeats his swing as well as anybody. His plate discipline is probably as impressive to me as anything and that's kind of the M.O. he had coming in. He seems to get a good pitch to hit and when he gets it, he rarely misses it."